Am I disabled?

Bobby Baker explains that “In our society it’s currently easier to shift a criminal record than any old psychiatric diagnosis that may have been attached to our names during our lives”. I am therefore labelled permanently as a moderate to severe depressive due to a diagnosis made at the age of 17.

In this post I want to explore my identity relating to disability. I say exploration, as I feel it would be impossible for me to arrive at a permanent yes/no answer to the title question. I want to place myself where I fit into the field of disabled discourse at this moment, with the full expectation that it will change throughout my life. As someone working within the arts sector and who has a interest in disability arts, it was only a matter of time before the question arose; am I disabled? And how does the answer to that affect my practice?

Whilst writing for the Live Art Development Agency, sean burn writes “i see language as our first battlefield”. By ‘our’, he is referring to “the mentally ill, formerly mentally ill, formally mentally ill, formatively mentally ill, mental-health service users, mental-health consumers (the American phrase – ouch) or plain survivors”. Technically I fit quite a few of these categories, but have never felt any of the language surrounding mental health fitted me well at all.

This isn’t to say I’ve never used terms similar to those above to describe myself. However, my motivation was less to do with how I perceived myself and entirely about how I was perceived by others. How could I claim support through the disabled students’ allowance if I didn’t identify as disabled? A letter of diagnosis was sent to lecturers in my first year of drama school so they could support my disability – it is unlikely they would have arranged the same level of support for someone who was just miserable and tired all the time. Slapping the term ‘disabled’ on my forehead was a survival method in the youth and adult mental health systems both in England and Scotland, but if I’d been given the choice I may well have treated the label with more reluctance.

Bobby Baker examines the use of ‘Dis’ words when discussing mental health, explaining how society often sees ‘Dis’ people as weak and requiring help from the ‘non-dis’ people. However, she goes on to say that “The very ‘disability’, ‘disadvantage’, ‘disorder’ that society deems so problematic can actually lead to sophisticated resilience and flexibility. Such people can acquire skills, insights, and humour – indeed wisdom about humanity – that others struggle with”. This sentiment resonates with me immensely. I have previously described my depression as my greatest gift, which means to refer to it as a disability feels inappropriate.

‘Survivor’ is a term that is widely used in mental disability discourses. Margaret Price, in her essay ‘Defining Mental Disability’, voices initial concerns with this term. She says it seems to refer to a one-off traumatic event that someone has experienced, such as its use when discussing survivors of sexual abuse or rape. Both Price and myself experience depression not as a single event but a continuous factor of day-to-day life for many years. However, Linda J. Morrison, in her study ‘Talking Back to Psychiatry’, claims that the “heroic survivor narrative” is a recurrent theme in the stories of those who have experienced poor mental health and the mental health system, albeit in “a range of intensity from high drama to muted sceptical observations”. It would appear that for many affected by mental health, the idea of survival is key to their experience. Price comes to the conclusion that the term ‘survivor’ can “denote one who is actively and resistantly involved with the psychiatric system on an ongoing basis”. I can identify with the idea of ongoing battles with the psychiatric system, but the term ‘survivor’ still doesn’t encompass what it means to me to have depression.

As the non-heterosexual community have reclaimed the once offensive term ‘queer’, the Mad Pride movement has reclaimed the word ‘Mad’. Price claims that “As with queer, the broad scope of mad carries the drawback or generality but also the power of mass”. Allen Thiher, in ‘Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature” justifies the reclaiming of the word, as “access to the entity afflicted with madness is obtained through a language game”. Initially I didn’t feel comfortable with using ‘mad’ in this way at all. Maybe it was the generality that Price speaks of that made me uncomfortable, or the derogatory history of this word (As Price says “often the very terms used to name persons with mental disability have explicitly foreclosed our status as persons”.) However, as I continue to work with themes of mental health in my work I have grown to enjoy the reclaiming. It’s funny! And as my practice develops I am beginning to understand the important of comedy when addressing dark topics, especially when introduced to performers such as David Hoyle.

Price uses the term ‘Psychosocial disability’ in her writing, explaining it as “the excluded middle or liminal space where impairment meets world to become disability”. This is something I experience in my own life, as despite my low moods being eased through medication there are many other symptoms of depression that make fitting social expectations difficult. Extreme fatigue makes long periods of concentration hard, and going out in the evening is impossible. My reluctance to talk to new people, as well as finding conversations with well known people hard work, makes social events and ‘networking’ far beyond my reach. These things are problematic because I cannot do what is expected of me within the social group and culture I live in. The inclusion of ‘social’ in psychosocial disability is so important. The social element of depression is even included as part of its description in the DSM V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition);

“The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning”

However, surely this term could be used to describe a whole range of impairments?  My first blog post comes to the conclusion that disability implicitly means to be disabled by society, because without prejudice people would just be impaired. I have always stated that for me, depression is no challenge compared with the way people react to it. Even naming my impairment is made difficult by others, as Price found that “in most social contexts, psychosocial failed to mean”. So, although this term describes me more than any other term, it is next to useless if I am the only one that understands it. I places me within the world of disability, but not within the world.

I am relieved that people are discussing these matters, and knowing there are others out there experiencing the same impairments and disabilities as I am helps to ease the ever-present isolation that comes with many disabilities. However, I still don’t feel I’ve found my ‘category’, and maybe that’s OK. For now I will continue to discuss myself as someone with depression, despite the fear of the stigma and prejudice that could come with that knowledge.

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2 thoughts on “Am I disabled?

  1. Fantastic that you have found Bobby Baker- Ruby Wax/Stephen Fry also has some brilliant points to make. I often wonder if the term’s related to disability only serve to sign post society to something that needs to be understood differently- I wonder when the evolution will occur whereby the assumption that those around us may at times feel and function differently will be just implicit.

  2. Again, the word disability feels like a strange construction that although useful can be equally useful. In a world of people who only have one leg, someone with one leg would not be seen as disabled but as the norm. And are we not all disabled because none of us have the ability to fly like birds, or breathe underwater like fish? I would like to scan the history of the term ‘disabled’ and see where its origins are

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